The depiction of drug cartels and their evolution across the South American heartland is a love affair which Hollywood refuses to give up on. Be it "Sicario", "Breaking Bad", "Traffic", "Blow" or "Cartel Land", the fascination with the likes of El Chapo, Pablo Escobar is almost eternal.
"Narcos" was the first attempt by any studio (Netflix and Gaumont) to create a global appeal for these stories by integrating the local flavour of the Columbian region and the English speaking protagonists on a large canvas. Usually the drug related problems and trade were depicted in feature films and some documentaries. Nobody ever targeted the global audience on this subject ever before. The Narcos franchise which is now in its 4th season has created global superstars like Wagner Moura, Pedro Pascal, Boyd Holbrook and many more.
This post talks about the new Narcos season titled as "Narcos : Mexico", the content, the theme and its own unique narrative.
Narcos: Mexico - what is it about?
The show creates a new world in this series by exploring the drugs business in the country of Mexico. It shows how the business gets started in the first place. It features the lives of two extraordinary individuals, one is a drug kingpin and the other is a DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) officer working in Mexico to catch him. The show stars two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Diego Luna and Michael Pena. This is possibly the first ever Narcos story which focuses on the inner workings and challenges of the DEA in its early years. The story also looks at the personal struggles of the DEA officials.
Just like other turbulent states in the 1980’s in Southern America, Mexico witnessed the rise of the Guadalajara cartel. Now the interesting thing to note about the resurgence of the drug trade in Mexico is that it emanated from the law enforcement establishment itself.
In the show, Felix Gallardo who is a police official who evolves into a drug kingpin by consolidating the local cannabis growers and drug peddlers into a syndicate which gained prominence as the force in Mexico which controlled the entire police network and law enforcement.
Michael Pena stars as DEA Agent Kiki Camarena, a Mexican-American who is assigned by the DEA in US to keep a check on the rise of Felix and his henchmen. For this Kiki relocates to Mexico and collaborates with local Mexican police to gather information on the cartel. There is a special focus on Kiki and his family’s travails as they suffer when the become part of a war between the DEA and the Guadalajara.
How is it different from other Narcos series?
The earlier seasons of Narcos were focused on the Pablo Escobar and Cali cartels in Columbia and chronicled their rise and fall. Actually, it quite tough to distinguish between these personalities. They all have risen from poor/ middle class backgrounds and attained supremacy through brutal force and a scientifically designed business. But Narcos:Mexico focuses on two characters rather than one. They look at the life of the DEA Agents as well, and both Diego Luna and Michael Pena bring their starpower to the roles.There is also a big focus on the henchmen of Felix Gallardo. Don Neto and Rafael (played by Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta) are extremely colourful characters who happen to be criminals. There is also a guest appearance by Pablo Escobar in the show as Felix gains prominence.
Here the story’s narrative is quite similar but new actors and their beautifully etched characters provide unexpected humour which is central to the antagonists in the show. There are some local issues to deal within Mexico like the corrupt police and intelligence bureaus.
The Portrayal of the Drug Enforcement Administration of the US:
The DEA here is not as powerful as in the earlier seasons of Narcos. Firstly, when this story takes place they are shown like a start up in the US Administration with an office in a building where there is a strip club joint. It’s also shown in exhaustive detail how tough it is for field agents to build a case and collect evidence. They don’t get any major support until somebody high up in the government intervenes.This is evident when Agent Kiki is abducted by the cartel. They operate on shoestring budgets as compared to CIA and the FBI and it’s very late in the show when they are given full support in gadgetry and surveillance. There is also the ridiculous politics of the hierarchy in the DEA and one can feel the frustration throughout the film. Unlike “Sicario” or “Breaking Bad”, the DEA in the show is a lot like a Indian Government office with no authority and only name tags.
The Performances of the lead cast
DIEGO LUNA as Don Felix Gallardo - Luna brings the poise, patience, calmness of a thinking and very controlled kingpin. Unlike Pablo Escobar he rarely kills with his own hand and is the guy who reasons and builds a syndicate bit by bit. Very faithful to his wife, he is the quintessential businessman who never gets stuck in bad habits, stupid affairs and is only focused on his team and business. He is also the guy who is dealmaker. There is a scene in which his team hands over the monthly cash bribe to the police where you will see some extraordinary ease. Its Luna’s charm and personality which brings volume to the character of Felix.
MICHAEL PENA as Agent Kiki Camarena- Pena is largely known for his comic performances in Hollywood. The latest being in “Ant-Man and The Wasp” where he is the light hearted and yet struggling sidekick. But here Pena is on a whole new level. He builds his character in each episode and evolves from a guy who isn’t even recognized by local cops in USA to national hero whose efforts energize the DEA like never before. His scenes with his wife Mika are very intense and in some ways explore the mental upheaval an agent goes through knocking doors of authority in a tough situation.
TENOCH HUERTA as Raphael Caro Qintero. Tenoch Huerta in “Narcos: Mexico” is the real surprise. Pena and Luna are global stars but Huerta who is a local Mexican star with limited international work, steals the thunder in many scenes. He plays a semi psychotic gangster who loves killing but at the same time is madly in love with Sofia whom he spots at a party. His character is a weird combination of fire and ice. In one scene he is seen as butchering a tourist who ‘interrupts his dinner’ and whom he mistakes for an DEA agent just because he is high and in another scene he keeps crying uncontrollably for Sofia. This character to mind is the ‘swing factor’ in the show. It’s my belief that Raphael is based on “Tony Montana” from “Scarface” which was portrayed by Al Pacino.
THE MUSIC OF GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA
His music has been on marquee cinema material like the movies of Alfonso Cuaron (The Motorcycle Diaries), Alejandro Innaritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), Ang Lee
(Brokeback Mountain),the video game “The Last of Us” and many more classics. In this show, Santaolalla does a soulful score portraying the lives of characters in a chaotic world.
“Narcos: Mexico” is a great one time watch primarily due to the change of geography of the central conflict and the sheer star power of Diego Luna and Michael Pena. The show has its own great moments and is amplified by a superb supporting cast led by Tenoch Huerta who delivers a knockout performance.
- Rahul Gupta, Film Critic.